Obsessive thinking is pondering the same point over and over with no new insight or outcome. Remember the old vinyl records? When there was a scratch on the record, the needle would go back and play the same small section repeatedly until the needle was lifted. That is obsessive thinking.
The thoughts don’t have to be violent or sexual to be obsessive (although they can be both). They can be about virtually anything. The key is that the thinking is debilitating in some way. Perhaps there is increased anxiety, guilt, depression, anger, or indecisiveness. Here are some different types of obsessive thinking.
Focusing on the past. Some obsessive thinking is focused on the past. This is called rumination. A past event or person can trigger feelings of guilt, regret, loss, anger, hostility, resentment, isolation, or abandonment as if it just happened. Usually these feelings are followed by condemning or self-depreciating remarks. Once this pattern has begun, it takes a great deal of effort to move forward. A person might even feel stuck for the remainder of the day. Instead, counteract the negative remarks with a positive statement about growth or learning.
Feeling out of control. When life circumstances become overwhelming, it is common to feel out of control. This downward spiral seems to be never-ending. As part of a healthy survival mechanism, the brain finds an area of life that it can control. For some people, this escalates into obsession and hyper-focus on one particular topic. Sometimes this intense concentration can result in compulsive behaviors. Individuals struggling with a series of illnesses may obsess and begin to compulsively wash their hands. Instead, set aside two 15-minute blocks of time about twelve hours apart. Use this time to ponder the circumstances and then resist thinking about them the rest of the day.
Figuring it out. One common explanation for obsessive thinking is that it is an attempt to discover new facts or information to make better future decisions. This can be useful in limited amounts, especially if an error or negative outcome was the result. But too much contemplation can lead to paralysis. This is where a journal is beneficial. Writing down the lesson learned cements the information and removes the need to relive the experience. It also serves as a reminder not to further ponder the point.
Fantasizing new outcomes. Another byproduct of obsessive thinking is escaping through fantasies. These fantastic thoughts provide a private release of emotion. But it is not the thought driving the emotion; rather it is the emotion driving the thought. To discover the root of the problem, begin with the emotion. For instance, if the fantasies include bouts of anger, then perhaps there is some suppressed anger that needs to be released. If the fantasies are focused on intimacy, then perhaps loneliness might be the issue. Addressing the underlying emotion will help to relieve some of the thinking.
When obsessive thinking is confronted, freedom from inner chaos is the result. The brain can be trained to think differently.